Book Review: Dear Child by Romy Hausmann
By John ValeriOctober 8, 2020
Dear Child by Romy Hausmann, translated from German to English by Jamie Bulloch, is a captivating thriller about the return of a person missing for 14 years, claiming to have escaped her captor along with a 13-year-old girl who was also held, whose family insists she is not their daughter.
Germany’s Romy Hausmann—born into the former GDR prior to its liberation—had a successful career as chief editor at a film production company in Munich by the age of 24 yet remained a struggling writer for more than a decade. It wasn’t until after she transitioned to freelance television work following the birth of her son that her ambitions as a novelist began to coalesce. The result, 2019’s Liebes Kind, was a #1 international bestseller (followed earlier this year by Marta schläft) that is now being published for the first time in America as Dear Child, with a translation from the German by Jamie Bulloch.
It all starts with a missing person in Munich. Fourteen years ago, 23-year-old Lena Beck disappeared in the early morning hours after leaving a party and making a phone call to a friend. Despite the subsequent police inquiry and her father Matthias’s desperate attempts to keep media interest alive—and to redeem his daughter’s tarnished reputation—the case goes cold. Flash-forward to the present and a woman fitting Lena’s description (including a distinctive forehead scar) and calling herself by Lena’s name is hospitalized following a hit-and-run. Once stabilized, she’s able to tell the authorities that she has escaped captivity.
What seems like the end of the ordeal, however, is only the beginning. When Lena’s parents arrive at the hospital, Matthias realizes immediately upon seeing her that this is not his daughter. It’s a crushing blow, but one that is tempered somewhat by the discovery that a 13-year-old girl was also taken from the accident scene; Hannah is the spitting image of Lena at that age, and Matthias believes she is his granddaughter (regardless of her references to the impostor Lena as “Mama”). But if that’s the case, what became of his Lena—and who is this woman alleging to be her? And what of the cabin in the woods she claims to have fled, leaving behind her injured (or possibly dead) abductor and a young boy named Jonathan?
Hausmann mind-bendingly answers these questions throughout a multi-viewpoint approach that illuminates the past to clarify the present. “Lena,” Hannah, and Matthias alternate first-person narration, which provides an effective (and intimate) juxtaposition of age, emotion, and interpretation. The contrasts—such as Lena’s conditioning to conform with Matthias’s demands for transparency—beget confrontation, while Hannah’s actions and observations leave the reader wondering if she’s uncommonly wise, whimsical, or a bit of both. Tension is further amplified by Lena’s and Matthias’s feelings of isolation and the distrust with which they view the world as a result of their individual (and shared) traumas. Elements of the unknown simply exacerbate this overriding sense of spiraling and suspicion.
Dear Child is poignant, powerful, and packed with plot twists. While compelling questions abound (think the 5 Ws), it’s the nature of the characters’ inner conflicts—which include the delicate balance of loyalty to, and protection of, oneself and others—that ultimately sustain the story’s suspense. Romy Hausmann’s debut is one of the most buzzworthy books of the season—and for good reason. Readers will find a multitude of textures and takeaways, not the least of which is this: Freedom is, or can be, a state of mind.